DUKE ELLINGTON MUSIC SOCIETY
10/2 August - November 2010
Our 32nd Year of Publication
FOUNDER: BENNY AASLAND
Voort 18b, 2328 Meerle, Belgium
Telephone: +32 3 315 75 83
Lena Horne died on Sunday night 9May10. Her closest connection to the Ellington community was her close friendship with Billy Strayhorn. An excellent obituary by Aljean Harmetz was brought to our attention by Carl Hällström through the courtesy of David Palmquist. Go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/arts/music/10horne.html?hp to read it.
Jo Ann Sterling gave us this address for the nice obituary written by Dennis McLellan, who however overlooked the relationship between Lena and Billy:
Joya Sherrill died on Monday 28Jun10. She was an exceptional vocalist, because her ability to sing the lyrics so that everybody could understand them is a very rare gift. Like many other great musicians, she had no formal training. When she suggested to Duke that she should do something about that, he advised her not to. Her relationship with Duke was such that he asked her to write her own chapter for his book Music Is My Mistress. Much of her work during the great years with Ellington was recorded on the Treasury Series, which were cleaned by Jack Towers and released by Jerry Valburn. DEMS took care that Joya received a complete collection of 48 LPs.
Joya was a guest at the party organized by Jean Bach in her house on Washington Mews in Manhattan for the occasion of having four Europeans joining the first international Ellington Conference in Washington DC in 1983. Joya attended many of these conferences. Her appearance on the stage of the New Regal Theatre in the production of "My People", for the occasion of the 1998 Ellington Conference in Chicago, was without a doubt the one most applauded.
Her spontaneity helped her make many friends in the Ellington community. She will be missed.
Duke Ellington’s America
See DEMS 10/1-8
Harvey G. Cohen: Duke Ellington’s America. The University of Chicago Press; 688 pages.
ISBN 978 0 226 11263 3.
Duke Ellington, master musician, one of America’s most important composers of the 20th century. Yes, of course, many people will agree. But a closer look at his music reveals an extra dimension in his work, which contains a very important message. This message pertains to the other, ‘darker’ side of the coin, which has been discussed and mentioned before, but not as seriously, thoroughly and well-documented as in Harvey Cohen’s monumental historic-cultural study. This message is about the uncensored and unadulterated expression of African American identity. Let’s have a closer look at the titles of some of his compositions, starting at the beginning of his career in the twenties and continuing into the seventies: Black Beauty, Creole Rhapsody, Symphony in Black, A Portrait of Bert Williams, Bojangles, Jump for Joy, Black, Brown & Beige, Emancipation Celebration, New World A-Comin’, Liberian Suite, Harlem, My People, King Fit the Battle of Alabam, La Plus Belle Africaine, It’s Freedom, Three Black Kings, as cases in point. They all refer to or tell a story about significant African American persons, situations and experiences. Duke Ellington was a proud, independent, and autonomous artist, who valued his African American heritage, and never compromised when his freedom of expression was at stake. He stood up to the important and influential record producer John Hammond who criticized Ellington’s extended 1935 composition Reminiscing in Tempo, written after the death of Daisy, Ellington’s mother. According to Hammond, Ellington was abandoning the music of his race, and he’d better concentrate on writing dance music as his medium of expression. For the rest of his career Ellington would ignore Hammond and avoid him as much as possible.
Independence, autonomy and self-esteem: these were the key concepts in Ellington’s life. In the early thirties he hired three well-apportioned Pullman train cars to ferry the orchestra around during its Southern tour. In this way he not only travelled very comfortably, but he also avoided all kinds of humiliations, such as not being serviced in hotels and restaurants. Ellington incorporated Tempo Music, his own publishing company, in New York City in December 1940. For the rest of his career, the company ensured that he would earn the publisher’s share of his songs’ royalties, as well as the songwriter’s share. It was a business move that greatly aided the survival of the orchestra and Ellington’s music in the decades to follow. And it set an important precedent for African Americans, and other jazz artists, controlling their own publishing. No major popular music figure – white or black – had created his own publishing company since Irving Berlin in 1914.
To me, one of the most revealing accounts of Ellington’s artistic integrity and self-confidence is the following, describing an incident that occurred during a 1944 RCA Victor recording session, under the direction of Eli Oberstein. “The microphone in the control room where the engineers were, which should have flipped back to the ‘off’ position did not, it stuck. And so the mike remained open, Eli came in, and he says: “OK boys, you ready for a little Saturday night nigger music,” or something to that effect. Well that went right into the studio and everybody in the Ellington band just kind of looked up and it was not exactly what they were used to hearing, and they all looked in the control room (…). And Duke, you know, turned slowly back and said to the band, “Gentlemen, pack up.” He shuffled the music, gave it to the copyist, went and put his coat on, and (…) walked down the hall at 24th Street, and on out” (Cohen, p. 264).
At that moment, Ellington’s Victor contract had two years to go. Ellington did not scream or shout, he did not curse or insult Oberstein and those who were with him in the control room. He just walked out on them, leaving the burden of shame and the feeling of awkwardness on their shoulders. It was a very clear statement, and a telling testimony to the fact that he valued his artistic integrity and his self-esteem above the financial security of a contract with a big company.
By his authoritative and dignified behavioural style and manners, and the fundamental choices he made at crucial moments in his life and career, Duke Ellington set an example that served and will serve as a role model for African Americans and the unique contributions they can make to American society. Of all the books I have read on the subject of Duke Ellington, Cohen’s book is easily the best and certainly the most comprehensive.
Ellington et ses Imaginaires
By Alain Pailler
Published in 2002 by Actes Sud at 21 Euros
Three cheers for the essay, a literary form which aspires to more substance than an article, though less than a treatise. In the era of emails, blogs and instant comments, the essay seems to have fallen somewhat from favour, though not, it seems, in France. Perhaps that’s not so surprising in the country which gave us Michel de Montaigne.
A most valuable form it is too, in the hands of Alain Pailler, who offered us in 2002 Duke’s Place, a second volume in which he considers aspects of Ellingtonia. The first, Plaisir d’Ellington, had appeared four years earlier [see DEMS 99/4-29/1], and the cover blurb describes them together as a diptych.
At the heart of Duke’s Place is a consideration of the Ellington drummers, specifically Sonny Greer, Louie Bellson, Sam Woodyard and Rufus Jones. Pailler’s initial proposition is that, somewhat in anticipation of the freedoms of bebop and beyond, the Ellington Orchestra’s rhythmic pulse was essentially supplied by the bassist with (until 1949) the guitarist, i.e. within the harmonic framework of the music. In this regard Wellman Braud, Oscar Pettiford and of course Jimmie Blanton are singled out. This frees the percussionist to take on the colourist’s role which is more usual in a symphony orchestra, and it incidentally turns inside out the old saw that a jazz ensemble comprises ‘x musicians plus a drummer’. Pailler concentrates on the ways in which the Ellington drummers supply the dots which define the ‘i’s, the strokes which cross the ‘t’s’.
The section on Sonny Greer is a brief summary of the much lengthier discussion of Greer’s art in the earlier book, in which the author concentrated largely on the marvels of the 1940-42 band. In support of his view that for all his growing waywardness Sonny could cut it until the day he left, Pailler cites numerous recordings from the late 40s and early 50s. He ends his summary with a poetic paragraph on Swamp Fire (1946), in which he employs another approach to jazz writing which seems largely forgotten in this age of the Ph D thesis and the scholarly tome; the critical impressionism which the late Martin Williams found in Vic Bellerby’s writing on Ellington (The Art of Jazz, 1959).
Turning to Greer’s successor, Louie Bellson, Pailler finds him so complete a drummer that he could seem a second orchestra within the Orchestra. Louie’s skills as a big band drummer (which in the conventional sense, Pailler says, Greer was not, the arrival of Blanton having freed him to add the role of hard-swinging drummer to his existing functions as a percussionist) enabled Louie to pick up the 1950-52 band by the scruff of its collective neck and completely redefine its sound and feel. In doing so, Pailler argues, Louie stemmed and reversed the slow dilution of the ensemble in the late 1940s as the old gods departed one by one, and prepared their replacements to be a new malleable instrument for Ellington’s purposes with the arrival in 1955 of a new colourist at the percussion. Pailler does not overlook the solidly unspectacular, but crucial, role of Wendell Marshall in this redefinition (pp56-7).
The newcomer in 1955 was of course Sam Woodyard, and Pailler devotes over thirty pages .to Sam’s achievement, an essay within the essay which he clearly intends as a complement to the piece on Greer in the earlier book. He cites a wide range of examples to illustrate his points and substantiate his assertions. These references alone, which send the reader back to the recordings which may have been gathering dust on the Ellington shelf for years, make the book invaluable. Pailler considers the three successive bassists in this wonderful rhythm section, Woode, Bell and Shepherd, in the end perhaps favouring Shepherd over his two predecessors. It is an invidious comparison, and one of many judgments with which one could take friendly issue. The brief consideration of Rufus Jones concentrates largely on the music of the Far East Suite (composed of course, but not recorded for Victor, in the Woodyard period, though Pailler doesn’t make that point).
A number of other topics surround Paller’s discussion of the four drummers, setting off the diamond cluster of which the discussion of Woodyard is the central gem. After outlining his terms of reference in a short introduction he describes the importance of 1956 in Ellington’s achievement in surviving the passing of the dance-hall era, with special reference to Such Sweet Thunder. He ruminates for twenty pages on Duke’s conception of ‘the jungle’; revisiting this theme after his survey of the drummers, comparing it with expressionism, especially in German cinema, and the notion of the doppelgänger. Then he considers the Ellington-Strayhorn relationship, without falling into the trap of boosting the one at the expense of the other (essentially they were good for each other, and so were good for us); discusses Caravan, from its 1930s beginnings to the late 1950s; surveys the evocations of trains, with the curious omission of Loco Madi. He concludes with a few pages (nothing daunting) in which he discusses several passages illustrated by musical transcriptions, an approach he is at pains elsewhere to avoid.
This is a slim book, though not a slight one; impressionistic, but with its feet firmly on the ground of the Ellington discography. Within it the author moves comfortably and very widely, with a strong sense of focus, while conceding a preference for the earlier music over the later. Pailler covers a lot of ground, and he writes lucidly and well. Anyone with good French will get a lot out of Duke’s Place and its companion volume Plaisir d’Ellington. Readers with a more modest grasp of the language should still find much of interest, as they go back to those long neglected recordings in the light of Pailler’s judgments.